Cognitive Dissonance: US Foreign vs. Domestic Policy

The United States styles itself as the light upon the hill, the bastion of liberty and equality. Yet according to a 2014 Gallup Poll, the US was voted the greatest threat to peace in the world by the 68 countries surveyed. With its ever-expanding Global War on Terror, best epitomized by two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that the world perceives the US as detrimental to world stability and peace is unsurprising. But more than American foreign adventures abroad, the systemic disconnection between American foreign and domestic policy encapsulates everything that is wrong with American global leadership, or misguided hegemony as it is understood by others. America possesses a moral vision of how to shape a better world – one rooted in liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness – yet this vision is consistently ignored, disregarded, or simply contradicted at home.

Admittedly, the litany of American hypocrisy is extensive, so this article will highlight only a few drawn from a wide purvey of issues: unpaid internships, maternity leave, women in the military, and racial equality.

In its mission statement, the US State Department asserts that “A world in which half of humanity lives on less than $2 per day is neither just nor stable.” Yet, ironically, in the summer of 2015 alone, the US State Department “employs” 937 unpaid student interns. Not limited to the US State Department, President Obama perpetuated this hypocrisy when he raised the minimum wage for thousands of federal employees in 2015, yet maintained a legion of unpaid interns at the White House. Whether prestigious firms or government agencies, employers see no need to pay for labor in a market flooded by candidates all armed with advanced degrees who still seek unpaid internships in places that they someday hope to work. Consequently, the culture of unpaid internships has produced a semi-permanent class of unpaid labor in the nation’s capitol.

Some like Daniel Rothschild, a Senior Fellow of the R Street Institute, explains that, “Shut out of the internship marketplace, many potential interns will simply take on more debt to get more and better credentials to make them look attractive to future employers.” Yet Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, argues that “Lucrative and influential professions — politics, media and entertainment, to name a few — now virtually require a period of unpaid work, effectively barring young people from less privileged backgrounds.” Ultimately, one must ask how the United States can advocate for laborers’ rights and economic mobility abroad when so many Americans with advanced credentials remain stuck in unpaid positions.

Another striking issue in the United States is maternity leave. As recently highlighted by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, among industrialized nations, the US and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries that do not provide paid leave for new parents. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants roughly twelve weeks of unpaid leave annually, but “applies only to full-time workers at companies with 50 or more employees.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12 percent of Americans have access to paid maternity leave. Unsurprisingly, women are often forced to choose between having a healthy family or attaining their career aspirations.

Similarly, the US is currently embroiled in a controversial debate over whether or not to integrate women into combat roles within its Armed Forces. The notion that women tasked to defend and promote liberty and equality for the nation are denied those very rights is not only hypocritical, but also terribly unjust. Women have not only engaged in combat, but also participated in Special Operations roles, distinguishing themselves with valor and excellence. Ironically, in Afghanistan, the US consistently attempts to paint itself as an advocate for women’s rights. For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced its largest award “aimed at advancing opportunities for Afghan women who can become political, private sector, and civil society leaders.” Apparently, the US is a staunch defender of women’s rights everywhere, except within its own borders. The juxtaposition would be almost comical, if it wasn’t so tragic.

On top of gender hypocrisy, racial inequality in the US offers another poignant point of contention between American domestic and foreign policy. Ethnic and religious violence is common throughout the world – Rwanda’s genocide, ethnic tribal feuds in Afghanistan, religious and ethnic civil strife in Iraq; the list goes on. As one would expect, US foreign policy urges ethnic tolerance and reconciliation as reflected by the recent State Department statement on Burma’s growing ethnic violence. Yet on the home front, although outright racism may be condemned, data suggests that “white Americans still carry significant unspoken anxiety and negative feelings about the shifting racial balance in the country.” The recent wave of racially driven shootings and violence demonstrates ethnic and racial tensions are still alive in America. Headlines are routinely flooded with news of the race riots, nationwide protests of racial shootings, and racial controversy like the recent standoff over the Confederate flag.

Yet, more than outward violence, race remains a fundamental systemic socio-economic challenge. According to the Pew Research Center, the average net worth of white Americans is thirteen times higher than black Americans, one of many such statistics that demonstrates the deep-seated, systemic nature of racial bias in the US. America should look within its own borders and solve its own ethnic and race challenges through national reconciliation and justice before trying to export that tactic abroad. The harsh truth is that the ghost of Jim Crow, the vestiges of ‘equal but separate’ linger in America’s collective consciousness – whether we acknowledge its presence or not.

For all of its shortcomings though, America remains a country of free men and women who are blessed with high standards of living, relative stability, and global primacy. But as the lone true superpower, the US bears a heavier burden than any other nation – not only to serve as an example, but also to police the world order. With the road to global order and stability so fraught with twists and pitfalls, missteps are understandable, even expected. Even so, America needs to look inward and get its own house in order before rushing off to export democracy and human rights abroad. Poverty, inequality, and violence all plague America today. And maybe the answer to American foreign policy is to establish a better domestic example on how to tackle and solve these daunting challenges – to truly embody that light on the hill, as something more than empty rhetoric.

Photo by Adam Fagen / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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